The Seeds of the Benghazi Talking Points
11:04 AM, May 14, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
Last week, the Benghazi talking points took center stage in the ongoing investigation of the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Libya. Jay Carney came under intense questioning at Friday's White House press briefing as he struggled to justify a dozen iterations of talking points before Susan Rice used the final version for her now-infamous five Sunday talk show appearances on September 16, 2012. However, a background briefing by the State Department four days before Rice's appearances provides the earliest extended look at the information used to prepare those talking points.
On September 12, in the evening following the attacks, three unnamed State Department officials briefed journalists via teleconference on the rapidly developing story. Although President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton had already made some public statements, this briefing contained far more detail than any previous remarks. As the teleconference commenced, the most striking part about it is that "senior administration official one" (who has been widely reported as Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland) does not mention "protests" or "demonstrations":
Later in the briefing, a journalist asks a question about protests [emphasis added]:
It is apparent that the idea of protests at Benghazi had not yet even entered into the discussion at the State Department. The official in fact clarifies that the questioner is not referring to the protests outside the Cairo embassy, which of course had dominated the news the previous day. Another journalist raised the Cairo protests again later in the briefing:
Again, when given the opportunity to connect the Cairo protests with Benghazi and the anti-Muhammad video, the State Department official referred to the lack of "any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi," not "the protests in Benghazi." This complete absence of "protests" or "demonstrations" in the State Department's discussion of Benghazi makes the revision in the talking points changing "attacks" in the first version to "demonstrations" in the third version even more curious.
A second point of contention regarding the talking point revisions relates to the spontaneous versus planned nature of the attacks and the participation of al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates. Andrea Mitchell raised this question early in the briefing:
As the administration has stressed in defense of the early statements, the official declined to confirm or deny the suspected participation of al-Qaeda groups. In fact, Mitchell's question contains the only reference to al Qaeda or "terror" in the entire briefing, and yet the first version of the talking points prepared by the CIA included multiple references to al Qaeda and its affiliates. This is perhaps an early indication of the differences between the State Department and the CIA that would eventually lead to the twelve revisions in the following days.
Regardless, the State Department official did note that "[i]t was clearly a complex attack." In fact, "attack" or "attackers" is used twelve times throughout the briefing. By contrast, in reference to Benghazi, "protest," "demonstration," and "spontaneous" are not used at all.
A third and final point raised over the talking point revisions was the removal of references to prior attacks in Libya in the months leading up to September 11. A questioner raised the issue of prior security incidents at the briefing:
Although the official stated that "we did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th," an overview of State Department warnings and alerts shows a clear drop off between 2011 and 2012 in 9/11 anniversary warnings.
After the background briefing on September 12 and over the next three days, the information the administration had presented in this briefing was combined with new information that continued to be gathered by intelligence and other agencies and ultimately led to the talking points used by Susan Rice. It was also during this time, as we reported, that the Overseas Security Advisory Council withdrew a report that had been issued on September 6, five days before the attack, entitled "Terrorism and Important Dates." The report downplayed the likelihood of a 9/11 anniversary-date attack by al Qaeda or other terror groups, noting that concerns over such attacks are often due to "increased media attention to the issue." A State Department official contacted via email said the report was withdrawn because "the content had expired," and did not respond to requests for further clarification.
The removal of references to prior security incidents from the talking points and the withdrawal of the Terrorism and Important Dates report suggests that the administration was not inclined to draw attention to its pre-Benghazi posture on diplomatic security and preparedness.
Clearly the information during the first few days and even weeks after the Benghazi attacks was incomplete and even contradictory. But in retrospect, it is clear that the Obama administration understood almost from the beginning the politically vulnerable position it was in due to its actions (and inaction) before, during, and, as soon became apparent, after the attacks. The clear frustration of the White House press corps during Friday's press briefing with Jay Carney may be another sign that the concerns over the last eight months of mainly conservatives and Republicans are beginning to spread. Even Democrats at the Benghazi congressional hearings on Wednesday were openly calling for additional hearings to resolve the many remaining unanswered questions of Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans.
The coming weeks and months will be a strong test of the sincerity of an administration that has claimed on many occasions to be the most transparent in history. The continuing obfuscation on Benghazi by administration officials up to and including the president is casting further doubt on that claim.
Recent Blog Posts